When Matti Martin began a National History Day research project on World War II, her goal was to look beyond the staggering number of people killed and focus on one fallen Minnesota soldier’s personal story.
The incoming Blaine High School senior and her former middle school teacher Ron Hustvedt were one of 15 student-teacher teams from the United States who traveled to France to learn and tell the stories of the brave souls involved in the invasion of Normandy in June 1944 and say a eulogy in honor of them.
The soldier Martin and Hustvedt learned about was Virgil Tangborn, who was born in Schleswig, Iowa, and was the second oldest of six children. He had four brothers and one sister. The family moved from Iowa to Nary, Minn. in 1930.
“He’s not the type of hero to carry a gun,” Martin said during a eulogy she read at Tangborn’s grave site at the American Military Cemetery at Omaha Beach in St. Laurent, France.
“He wasn’t the one to show up in tights or a cape and save the day. He was the one who quietly, like everyone else, put his hands in and tried to help in the best way possible.”
Tangborn was posthumously awarded the Silver Star. He landed at Utah Beach June 8, 1944, two days after the Normandy invasion started on what would become known as D-Day. On June 14, 1944 on the Cherbourg Peninsula, Tangborn tried to rescue an American soldier injured from intense Nazi artillery fire on an ammunitions truck and he was killed in the attempt.
Tangborn was only 24 years old. Had he come home from the war, Martin believes he would have pursued his dream of becoming a film director or actor. Like Martin, Tangborn loved to read and played an instrument.
The U.S. Army drafted Tangborn in 1942 and selected him play French horn in the 90th Division Band after a successful audition. For about two years, the band traveled all over the U.S. to entertain troops who were preparing to be deployed overseas.
When the band was sent to England in April 1944, it became clear that the U.S. Army needed more soldiers for the invasion of Europe, so band members were ordered to carry the dead and wounded on stretchers off the battlefield and treat injuries as best they could.
Visits with family, including Tangborn’s younger brother Wendell, and reading his diary were key to finding out more about the man who put down his French horn to pick up a medic kit, Martin said.
Tangborn wrote about books he was reading, shows he saw, listening to the radio and the weather, but by August 1941 he seemed resigned to the fact that America would get involved in the war and just three days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, he had a feeling he would be involved.
He wrote about his future looking “black and indefinite” in a March 12, 1942 entry. He was losing his will to work, but continued reading a lot. Before going to take a physical at Fort Snelling, he wrote about hoping he would fail the physical.
But in a March 27, 1942 entry he wrote how “a strange calm” had come over him.
“Feel a strong will to achieve something forming and growing. It seems like I have been living a too careless and too easy a life,” he wrote on this day. “I have a sudden determination to never slide back into those easy leisurely ways. Maybe I am squarely facing reality at last and am beginning to mature mentally.”
On that same day, a New York Times headline quoted Gen. Douglas MacArthur pledging, “We’ll win or die.”
A commanding officer’s account of the incident was the only reason Tangborn did not become just another fatality statistic in the first place. It is why the Normandy 44-90th U.S. Infantry Division organization headed by Henri Levaufre chose him to be one of four U.S. service members whose likeness was copied for a statue in the French city of Périers that Tangborn helped liberate from Nazi occupation, according to Hustvedt.
Walking in Tangborn’s footsteps including running up sand dunes at Utah Beach and watching the great disparity between the high and low tides gave Martin and Hustvedt an even greater appreciation for what the U.S. soldiers faced on D-Day and the days after. The Normandy invasion had to be timed just right because of the tide and running up the beach was tough enough for Martin without having to even worry about being shot at and friends dying around her.
When Hustvedt heard about the World War II soldier National History Day project opportunity through the Minnesota Historical Society, the social studies teacher at Salk Middle School in Elk River asked a few former students to write an essay to explain why they would be the best person to take on this daunting and important topic and Martin stood out.
Martin lives in Otsego, but goes to Blaine High School for its science, technology, engineering and math magnet program. Her dream is to attend Harvard University and pursue a career in the medical or biomedical engineering field. She currently ranks 32nd out of 751 Blaine High School students in terms of grade-point average.
Learning about history and honoring veterans who have served are her other passions. She had a great-grandfather serve in World War II in North Africa, southern Europe, the Philippines and Japan.
Both of her grandfathers were in the Vietnam War. She grew up hearing from grandfather Oather Martin how Vietnam vets were disrespected when they came home and how their stories were disregarded.
“They don’t want to be remembered as heroes. They want to flat out be remembered,” Martin said. “(Oather) said the cruelest thing you can ever do to a veteran is forget them.”
Martin has been the keynote speaker at the Hutchinson VFW’s last five Memorial Day programs where Oather is a member. She spoke about Tangborn and the trip to Normandy, France, at a Fourth of July event in Elk River.
When Oather heard his granddaughter was going to tell the story of a World War II veteran, he proudly paraded her around the VFW so she could tell others what she would be doing. After she shared Tangborn’s stories, they were in tears and one disabled veteran named John came up to her and said, “I’ve been in places where God doesn’t exist. You make me believe in the future.”
A relative of Hustvedt’s was a nurse based in England for the last three years of World War II and had become engaged to a paratrooper who later died on D-Day during the Normandy invasion. He worked on National History Day projects in high school and has written articles about from a teacher’s perspective.
Hustvedt said National History Day does not really end and Martin’s quest to share Tangborn’s story continues. Completing a website is the last task she must finish for her National History Day project.
During her eulogy at Tangborn’s grave site and after she had rubbed sand over the white gravestone so the name could continue to be seen, Martin shared how she was so nervous about saying the wrong thing when she first met Wendell Tangborn, but as he began talking about his brother Virgil, she felt she was hearing stories about an old friend.
“It makes me so sad to think that an amazing man like you had to die,” Martin said.
To read Martin and Hustvedt’s blog about the trip, visit RememberingDDay.weebly.com.
Eric Hagen is at